24 May 2018

Spotlight on consumer needs

Our Risk Outlook was published in April 2016. This sets out our priority areas of risk in the legal services market and provides some useful context to accompany them. In the second of a series of three features, we summarise the priority area of consumer needs. More detailed analysis and evidence is provided in the main publication, which can be found on our website.

Consumer. Customer. Client. Some of us use these terms interchangeably, some of us feel quite strongly about which should be used and when. However, they arejustterms. When a vulnerable individual makes contact with you (or their solicitor does, on their behalf) to advise on their case, it does not matter whether you call them a client or a consumer: who they are and their circumstances will not change.

We follow the Legal Services Act 2007 in its use of the term "consumers". This defines consumers as people:

  • who use, have used or are or may be contemplating using legal services because of a legal issue;
  • who have rights or interests which are derived from, or are otherwise attributable to, the use of such legal services by other persons; and
  • who have rights or interests which may be adversely affected by the use of such legal services by persons acting on their behalf or in a fiduciary capacity in relation to them.

Our Risk Outlook has identified the market's difficulty in meeting consumer needs as one of the priority areas of risk. We decided on these areas by identifying and assessing the risks to the regulatory objectives (the latter are set out in the Legal Services Act 2007). This involved the collection and analysis of evidence from a wide range of sources.

It is important that the Bar can meet consumer needs. The Legal Services Consumer Panel has developed a set of Principles that can help us in identifying what consumers needs are. These include access to services, choice of providers and redress if things go wrong. We believe a fair and democratic society is maintained through the ability of consumers to get appropriate remedies through the justice system if they have not been treated fairly. The issues they seek legal advice on can often be uncertain, life-changing and make them vulnerable.

Below, we briefly summarise the four things a person may experience when they think they have a problem. We reflect on the risks and opportunities which have been identified at each of them. More detail on each stage, including the evidence we've considered, can be found in the Risk Outlook.

Identifying a legal problem

The first stage is a consumer identifying that they have alegalproblem. For a trained lawyer, this seems trivial. But for a consumer, knowing whether or not a problem has a legal remedy can be difficult.

Seeking assistance

Secondly, they need to know who can assist them with their problem. They can go to a solicitor, who may then appoint a barrister. They can go direct to a barrister. Or, amongst other options, they can go to someone who is unregulated. There is some information out there to help consumers navigate the maze - but not enough. There is an opportunity for those barristers who can help consumers navigate that maze.

At what cost?

Consumers may not understand the cost of receiving assistance. It can be challenging for lawyers to provide accurate estimations of costs upfront. There can be uncertainty in the amount of work they may need to undertake for a particular consumer. However, transparency in fees and clear contractual terms can help. Barristers could also offer public access and unbundling, or fixed fees, which may let them offer services at lower (or more predictable) costs. This could bring in more work and provide legal advice to those on lower incomes.

Those who do manage to find assistance to help resolve their legal problem will come from a range of backgrounds. They will have different means of communicating and may be vulnerable. This can make it difficult for them to interact with lawyers. This could jeopardise their case. Barristers should be able to identify these factors and tailor their services to address them. Such tailoring allows barristers to act in the best interests of consumers and to deliver a higher quality of service. The resulting customer satisfaction can be invaluable in a sector where many referrals are word of mouth.

What happens next?

Finally, consumers need to know what to do after receiving that service. If they were not successful in their case, they need to know the legal routes available to them. If their lawyer fell short of the standards expected of them, the consumer needs to know who they can go to. Customer satisfaction and 'word of mouth' referrals play an important role in the market for many of the Bar's services. Focusing on consumer feedback can help many barristers to improve their services and be more competitive.

At each stage, the consumer is faced with challenges which can mean their needs aren't being met. At each stage, barristers have opportunities to help these challenges to be overcome.

For more information, our Risk Outlook can be found on our website.